Sunday, 8 November 2015

On Prime Minister Modi's embarrassment in Bihar and the future of tolerance in India

Here is the latest of my Dadu columns, which is to be published in the next issue of FORWARD Press Magazine (New Delhi):

Dear Dadu

After the rising tide of intolerance following the election of Modiji, does the triumph of the Grand Alliance in Bihar represent a victory for tolerance?

Is our tradition in fact tolerant or intolerant?



Dear Shanti

We have indeed seen an incredible rise in intolerance in India following Modiji’s elevation to the Prime Ministership. However, why it was that he and the BJP lost so spectacularly in Bihar is not entirely clear. It may have been partly a vote for tolerance, but it was also certainly at least to a certain extent the lack of a credible local Bihari leader of the BJP, and it was no doubt also partly coalition arithmetic.

The upshot is that the BJP needs reject its dependence on RSS, so that it has some hope of becoming a mature party which represents the entire nation rather than a party focused only on the interests of a particular set of people. Though the RSS and BJP claim to be “majoritarian”, in fact they do not represent the interests even of all Hindus. RSS/BJP represent the interests only of those upper castes who think that India should become Hindutvan.

Hindutva is merely the latest (from the early 20th century AD) expression of an intolerant strand of Indian tradition which goes back at least to the 6th century BC – you may recollect that Mahavira and the Buddha were both anti-casteist, and were both violently opposed for that reason. The Buddha’s death may have been due to poisoning, and certainly the way his cremation site was treated showed extreme intolerance of his views for centuries. In India, intolerance has historically had little to do with religion. It has mostly been about caste. But of course caste and religion are inextricably connected. Over the last century, we have tried to disentangle the two – with only very little success.

By contrast to our intolerant side, we have also had an extremely tolerant side to our traditions, not only because of the continuing influence of Mahavira, the Buddha, and other thinkers and leaders within India but, since the sixteenth century because of the influence of the colonial powers. In the case of most of the colonialists, the tolerance was for the same reason as most Indian tolerance today: we are prepared to tolerate anything, provided we can retain our privileges, and continue to make money!

However, in the case of some of the colonialists (and some of us Indians today), we are committed to tolerance for its own sake. Modern Indians may not know that the tradition of tolerance among the colonialists arose from the Bible, where God reveals Himself as tolerating our rebellion and even sin – but He tolerates these for the purpose of our realising our stupidity and returning to a relationship with Him. That is what gave rise to the tradition of tolerance in the West – though that is now being infected by “tolerance for the sake of keeping my privileges and making as much money as I can”. In the Bible, too, God asks us to be tolerant of many things as well as intolerant of many things.

So there are further questions raised by your question: Why should we be tolerant? Tolerant of what? Are there things of which we should be intolerant? When should we be tolerant and when intolerant?

In this letter, I will take only the first of these questions: Why should we be tolerant?

There are of course many reasons, but here are some key ones.

First, because we do not know everything. Indeed, we know so little that even our wisdom might prove to be mere foolishness or even darkness (as Jesus the Lord pointed out in the biography written by Luke, chapter 11, verse 35).

Second, because others may know more than us, or at least they may know some key things that we don’t know. It takes only a little bit of ignorance about the facts to reach completely the wrong conclusions.

Third, because intolerance shuts people down – they don’t start thinking like you do, they simply continue thinking the way they were thinking, but now they don’t speak up. Resentment and demotivation don’t make for outstanding performance. So intolerance leads directly to an underperforming society and economy.

Let me put my answer to that question in the following way: intolerance is the use of power to impose my own view on someone else. It arises therefore from stupidity as well as from the misuse of power.

The right use of power is to encourage people to flourish. No two flowers are alike. No two humans are alike. Diversity is a divine gift.

Finally, let me conclude this letter with the following questions to you: How much intolerance do you see in our society around you? In our families? In our educational institutions? In fact, how much intolerance do you see in yourself?

In myself, I see a perennial temptation to misusing power and to imposing my own views. God wants me, rather, to be humble, to be a learner, to offer whatever wisdom I might have in the spirit of sharing food, as one beggar might share it with another.



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